Calvin on Culture

John Calvin, whose birth and labors are being commemorated by the Calvinistic world during 1959, made original contributions not only to theology but also to the realm of culture. As a matter of fact, he produced a theology of culture, anticipating Tillich by these four hundred years.1 It is my purpose in this article to indicate something of the significance of Calvin’s theology for the proper understanding of culture. I am using the term culture in the broad sense as it refers to man’s fulfillment of the creation mandate to cultivate the earth, to subdue it and have dominion over it.

Calvin had settled in Paris and had m a d e his debut as a promising Humanist scholar when, as he himself writes, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life” (Preface, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Grand Rapids, 1949, p. XL). Thus Calvin became a new creature (II Corinthians 5:17) and therefore a seeker of God’s honor instead of his own. He soon realized that God called him to preach the Word and to reform the Church. Leadership was thrust upon him. But Calvin was not only the theologian of the Word par excellence,2 he also became the theologian of culture. That is to say, his expositions of the Word of God provide a theory of human culture.

Although man’s political institutions am the product of his cultural activity, I shall pass by Calvin’s contribution in this field, since it merits separate treatment and has more often received the attention it deserves than some of the other cultural contributions. For the purpose of this article I shall restrict myself to the field of economics and art.


In general, it ought to be observed, first of all, that Calvin rejected the nature-grace scheme of Aquinas, in which reason dominates nature and faith is the tool of grace. Nature is the realm of culture, which includes all the natural activities of man. However, Aquinas places the whole sphere of culture under the tutelage of the Church. From this bondage Calvin sought to deliver it. For him the realm of culture was independent of both church and state; it was the sphere of the adiphora, the indifferent things, over which neither pope nor king holds sway. This area is not restricted to matters of individual taste and opinion, but it includes music, architecture, technical learning, science, social festivities and all that falls under the daily concern of “what shall we eat, and what shall we drink.” In this realm man is free under God; it is the realm of conscience. Thus Christian liberty becomes one of the foundation stones of Calvin’s cultural philosophy.


Christian liberty is abused by the libertine and maligned by the ascetic. But true liberty is spiritual and restores justified sinners to the service of God so that there is nothing unclean in itself. To the pure all things are pure! However, the good gifts of God are abused if they are “too ardently coveted, too proudly boasted, and too luxuriously lavished.” That is, the Christian must use this world as not abusing it; he must observe moderation in the use of God’s gifts and forbearance toward his neighbor lest he give offense. Cultural achievement and the attainment of wealth arc not evil in themselves; neither is the enjoyment of food, drink, and luxury a.s such to be despised or condemned. But the curse of Cod falls on the rich because “they are immersed in sensual delights and their hearts are inebriated with present pleasures while perpetually grasping for new ones” (Institutes, III, 19, 9 and III, 6–10).

If we do not look upon all things in the light of eternity they have a tendency to draw us away from our calling. All that is not out of faith is sin. The saint, by justification, is set free to serve God in his cultural calling. Whereas Augustine held that “labor, though useful, is itself a punishment,”3 Calvin maintains that every man’s vocation is laid on him from God, from which he derives this peculiar consolation that “there will be no employment so mean and sordid as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly important in the sight of God” (Institutes III, 10,6).


Calvin’s commentaries abound with references to man’s physical needs and their satisfaction, which is the concern of economics. His sermons also are concrete and existential with respect to man’s struggle for existence. On the one hand, Calvin condemns beggary, but, on the other, he urges believers to treat their servants kindly and lovingly.

On the question of interest on money, Calvin rejected the general prohibition of the Middle Ages, based on Aristotle’s dictum that money is sterile. He warned against the dangers of usury and economic lawlessness, but at the same time maintained that the Word did not teach the general theory of Aristotle and the Scholastics. Calvin considered this a binding of the conscience where God had left it free. He vigorously denied the relevance of the Scriptural passages by which the Catholic Church sought to bolster its position. He held that one cannot validly apply the civil laws of the Jews to New Testament believers. BeSides, the rules that obtain among the brethren can not he applied to the realm of economic”, said Calvin. Although usury is condemned in Scripture, and Calvin himself abominated the practice, he held that the Bible contains no prohibition against the taking of interest on money for business ventures (Cf. Harmony of the Gospel, Matthew 8:42).

Moreover, Calvin maintained the productivity of money in industry and commerce, which has led some sociologists to credit Calvinism with the rise of capitalism. Calvin would have had no objection to capitalism as an economic system, yet he would have been the first to lash out against rugged individualism and the abuse of the power of money. He believed that one must lend to the poor without interest, but he wanted to distinguish between charity and business. He believed in sphere sovereignty. And business, in the sense of trading and commerce, he regarded as a legitimate venture. It was not trade that laid Tyre low, but excessive delight in worldly things. Neither was Babylon condemned for its prosperity and luxury, but for its haughtiness and pride (Commentary on Isaiah, ch. 47). Hence the merchant is the servant of God as much as the farmer.

For Calvin there was no dual morality, one for monks, and one for workers. He rejected all monkish vows, since they were based upon the assumption that there is a more perfect rule of life than that which God gave to the Church as a whole. Instead of the unnatural separation between the heavenly and the earthly, which was maintained by the Roman hierarchy, Calvin held t hat God requires perfection of all his children, beyond which we may not set up rules (Cf. Commentary on Philippians, 3:15; I John 3:12).

One of those rules of the papacy was the celibacy of the clergy. Against it, Calvin inveighed with all the power of his vast learning and all the passion of his scorn for that which is man-made, unapproved by the law of God. To him it proved that impostors had sabotaged the Church. Calvin was not an ascetic, who advocated world flight; rather he taught men the proper use of God’s good gifts (Institutes III, 6–10). He defended culture in its widest sense, extending from agriculture and commerce to the things of beauty and the luxuries of life. He rejected the cruel and inhuman philosophy of the Stoics, with their scorn of ordinary pleasures. For sin, said Calvin, does not reside in the body; its seat is in the heart. Evil is not found in the world of color, sound, food and drink, and clothing, but in the abuse of God’s good gifts. Holiness is attained, not by avoiding certain physical functions and rejecting the good gifts of God, but by accepting them in faith and using them to the glory of God and the edification of the Church (Sermons on Deuteronomy, 11:15; 12:15; 22:5; etc., and much more to the same effect in Institutes, III, 19, 9, 10). Simplicity and moderation are the key to the right use of God’s gifts.

In summary, concerning earthly goods, Calvin teaches, first, that one ought to be satisfied with a little, .always ready to relinquish what he has. Second, every man ought to labor honestly for his needful bread and lay aside all evil practices. Finally, even if one have but a little, he ought not to neglect to thank God and to eat his bread with contentment; while he who has much may not give himself up to intemperance. How simple these rules seem to us, but how profound if conscientiously followed.

Calvin was deeply interested in social justice and busied himself to improve the working conditions in Geneva. He lent the acumen of his legally trained mind to a codification of the city’s laws, seeking adjustment in the taxes. Doumergue goes so far as to say, “By rehabilitating handwork and by prescribing education for all, Calvin to a great extent erases the class distinctions in society.”4 However, this does not warrant the conclusion that Calvin was a collectivist, or a socialist in the modern sense of the term.


John T. McNeill5 says that in nothing has Calvin been more misjudged, perhaps, “than in the view that he lacked .any aesthetic sense.” There was a time when Jesuits and Voltairians considered Calvin to be the personification of everything that was anti-liberal, anti-artistic and antihuman. Happily, that day has passed, due to the life-long I a b o r s of Doumergue and, more recently, as the result of the researches of Leon Wencelius.6

Beauty, for Calvin, is the shining forth of the majesty and the glory of God. To divorce beauty from God is idolatry. Due to the fall, man has been blinded and has lost his sense of proper order. The beauty of this world no longer brings him into personal fellowship with his Maker, although beauty is a guide to God. Beauty is the divine luster of glory reflected from the thought and work of God. Because of the beneficence of God, all men have retained some appreciation for beauty and a limited ability to produce what is artistic (Institutes, II, 2, 15; 16, 17; II, 3) . Thus God’s purpose as expressed in the creation of man after his image, is fulfilled. But, although God’s image in man has not been destroyed by sin, yet man’s allegiance is no longer to God the Creator; for man now seeks the creature rather than the Creator.

However, the production of art is a natural gift, thoroughly human. The artist, as re-creator, stands above his work as possessor of the gift of God, and sees the beauty of creation better than his fellow-observers. On the other hand, the artist is subject to the law of God and must stand below his subject, as an observer of the creatures of God. He must develop a sense of the object, and fidelity to the object is a passion with Calvin. This came to expression in his study of the Scriptures in their original languages and his desire to make the Gospel available to his countrymen in their own language.

Calvin holds that the artist must be humble, long in preparation and not hasty in execution, expressing himself with clarity and purity. On the other hand, God has given great freedom and responsibility to his image-bearer in order that he may rule over creation in a manner analogous to the way God himself conducts the affairs of men. Hence God has not given man a set of artistic norms and rules, but rather expects him to discover these for himself. There is, however, one main principle to be observed, says Calvin: art must submit itself in the artist to the Word and the Spirit. This is an absolute principle in Calvin’s aesthetics.

Calvin divides the arts into the mechanical and the free. The first is bound to the materials with which it is produced, such as architecture and the plastic arts; while the second is not thus hampered, consisting of music, painting, and literature. Although art may serve man’s pleasure it may not he divorced from the service of humanity and the fear of the Lord. Calvin was of the opinion that the pagans succumbed to the temptation of exaggerating external beauty in the building of their temples; which is followed by Rome, but it is vanity and pride, since religious beauty consists of the spiritual unity of the believers. Hence, art may not obtrude itself in worship, because it is purely earthly and cannot represent uncreated things. And although Calvin insisted on the holiness of beauty, he was more concerned with the beauty of holiness.

Our cultus must reflect the divine glory, just as the created world does, since God is the center of both. The worship of God ought to be simple, since God is one; pure, since he is holy; harmonious, since it is he who has established the measure for everything.

Music is for Calvin the foremost of the arts in its adaptability to worship. The object of music is God and his creation. The glory of God and the elevation of man are its goal, and the inspired Psalms are its means. And since it is the goodness of God permeating the universe that makes men sing, God ought to be the center of man’s thoughts and feelings when he sings. Seriousness, harmony, and joy ought to characterize our songs to God. For Calvin, song was an unlimited reservoir of power, since it moves the heart to call upon the name of God more earnestly. It builds the church and unites its members in the bond of love. Calvin did not condemn secular music as such, but it may not be godless; it must serve to glorify God indirectly through man’s joy and elevation. Degrading and corrupting music ought to be rejected, for music has an incredible power to move men’s hearts.

Doumergue points out that Calvin brought about a revolutionary transformation of culture by introducing the Psalms in public worship. The corruption in the Catholic Church at this point cannot be understood without a complete picture of the profligacy and immorality of the age. Even the efforts of a Palestrina against lascivious and impure music was in vain and for two centuries after the Reformation the prescribed melodies for the Pater Noster and Ave Maria were taken from the popular love songs of the time.

Calvin has rightly been called the father of the Psalter. In 1539, while he was an exile in Strassburg, Calvin published the first edition of the Psalter. It contained his own metrical version of the Psalms plus twelve by Marot adapted to tunes he found in Strassburg. Later Calvin eliminated his own version and took those of Marot. He took the tunes from Bourgeois and others. This edition of 1562 had twenty printings in its first year and a total of 14 editions. Calvin himself discovered the famous tune of Greiter and adapted it to his version of Psalm 36. Later Beza took this tune for his version of Psalm 68, which has been called the Protestant Psalm of battles. The main theme of Calvin’s Psalter is that of serious joy, but it is also marked by power and majesty. It was called the Siren of Calvinism and was feared by the enemies of the cross of Christ while providing a universal form of art for all the Protestant churches. Calvin’s ideas made the greatest impact on the sacred music of the century and form the quintessence of the musical aesthetics of the Reformation.


Calvin did not despise the culture of the pagans, inasmuch as God had given them talents of acuteness for investigating sublunary things (Institutes, II, 2, 15). And “if it has pleased the Lord that we should be assisted in physics, logic, mathematics, and other arts and sciences, by the labor and ministry of the impious, let us make use of them; lest, if we neglect to use the blessings therein freely offered to us by God, we suffer the just punishment of our negligence (Ibid.). However, the natural gifts of God to man which remained after the fall have been so corrupted that, although God furnished the pagans some slight sense of his divinity, so that they were not able to plead ignorance as an excuse for impiety, “they saw the objects presented to their view in such a manner that by the sight they were not even directed to the truth, much less did they arrive at it” (Institutes, III, 2, 18). Even a Plato, the most judicious and most religious of all the philosophers, “loses himself in his round globe” (Institutes, I, 5, II). Over against the fact that a few truths “fortuitously besprinkle the books of the pagans,” stands the fact that “they are defiled with numerous and monstrous falsehoods” (Ibid.).

Calvin, then, was willing to use the contributions of pagans in the field of human culture and even acknowledged them to be our masters in matters of technique and artistic form. However, Calvin never lost sight of the antithesis in culture, the opposition of this world to the kingdom of Christ. This was evident in all his works but came to vivid expression near the close of his life in the founding of the Genevan Academy. This was considered a school for liberal studies, free from superstition. The basic objective was the knowledge of God and of his creation unto the service of God. Any solid learning that Calvin could find in the world he was willing to use by transplanting it into the framework of a Christian philosophy. Man’s wisdom and culture apart from Christ was for him smoke and vanity. The study of science and art is not for the praise of human genius or for the enjoyment of an elite minority, but for the greater glory of God. As a matter of fact, a liberal education may not be divorced from man’s goal in life, namely, understanding the Scriptures in order to do the will of God.

But this subject of education must wait for a separate article. I only allude to it here in closing as part of Calvin’s total evaluation of human culture. For Calvin all of culture is but an expression of man’s religious devotion to God. Since religion is the motivation of culture, one’s cultural activity expresses his faith. And all that is not out of true faith is sin -that is, apostate culture. Calvin took the apostolic admonition seriously, “be not conformed to this world”! He rejected the cultural patterns and the philosophic framework of an apostate culture. The glory of Calvin is that he unashamedly centers his cultural striving in the Christ of God. He accepts the Word which assures us that Jesus Christ is the mystery of God in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. May we have the courage and the faith to do likewise!

1. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, New York, 1959.

2. Cf. Dr. Fred Klooster, “John Calvin as Theologian,” Torch and Trumpet, IX, 1.

3. De Civ. Dei, XXII, 22.

4. Calvijn Als Mensch en Hervormer, tr. from French by H.C. Pos, W. Ten Have, Amsterdam, 1931, p. 142.

5.  The History and Character of Calvinism, 231, 232.

6. Cf. I’Esthetique de Calvin, Raspail, 1937.